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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Health officials say a graphic new anti-smoking campaign led to a doubling of calls to a toll-free number that helps people quit cigarettes.
Calls to 1-800-QUIT-NOW totaled more than 33,000 last week - the first week of the ad campaign. The phone line received less than 14,500 calls the week before.
Meanwhile, clicks to the www.smokefree.gov website, another government smoking cessation service, rose from about 20,000 to about 66,000. Those were the largest jumps in traffic the 7-year-old phone line and Web site had seen.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the numbers Friday. The CDC's $54 million, 12-week campaign is the agency's first national anti-smoking advertising effort, and features hard-hitting images of people who developed cancer and other illnesses from smoking. One ad shows Terrie, 51, from North Carolina. She tells people "I want to give you some tips for getting ready in the morning" as she holds a finger over the hole in her throat.
"Advertising works. Hard hitting ads work and showing the reality of people's lives and what smoking does to your ability to live out your life they way you want to live it..that's maybe the most motivating thing to get a smoker to quit," CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said at the launch of the campaign last month.
Critics claim the ads can be too disturbing for young kids - that there should be a more positive way to promote healthy lifestyles. Parent Rodrick Adams, a smoker, thinks there is a time and a place for the ads. "I would say kids 8 and up could catch on to that."
"These ads aren't too much for kids. Compare what they see on a regular basis. These ads are exactly what they need," President of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids Matt Myers said.
Smoking, Myers notes, has declined over the years but he says in the last 4 to 5 years that decline has slowed. "These ads are particularly important in states like North Carolina that has had effective tobacco control program and has recently dramatically cut its funding."
Spokesmen for two tobacco companies didn't speak specifically about the content of the ads. But both said they support the effort to inform folks about the effects of smoking.
"We agree smoking is addictive and causes serious disease and for those who want to avoid the health effects of smoking, the best thing to do is to quit. We support a three-part approach to reducing the harm caused by cigarette smoking: preventing underage tobacco use, promoting quitting and a focus on the development of and appropriate communications about potentially lower risk tobacco products. We believe we can play an important role in this effort and will continue to work with the FDA and others in public health to help reduce the overall harm of tobacco products," David Sylvia with Altria Group, the parent company of Phillip Morris USA said.
"It is a guiding principle and belief of R.J. Reynolds that quitting cigarette smoking significantly reduces the risk for serious diseases. Also, no tobacco product has been shown to be safe and without risks. The best course of action for tobacco consumers concerned about their health is to quit," Spokesman Richard J. Smith said.
"Regarding communication, we believe adult tobacco consumers have a right to be fully and accurately informed about the risks of serious diseases, the significant differences in the comparative risks of different tobacco and nicotine-based products, and the benefits of quitting. This information should be based on sound science."
"Further, we believe that governments, public health officials, tobacco manufacturers and others share a responsibility to provide adult tobacco consumers with accurate information about the various health risks and comparative risks associated with the use of different tobacco and nicotine products."
It's still too early to tell how ultimately effective the ads will be. Numbers released by the CDC Friday did not reflect whether it was a majority of adults or adolescents seeking help.
Copyright 2012 WBTV. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.